posted by / News / March 29, 2005

A quick quiz: you’re sitting on the beach when a man you’ve never met sits down and says: “My new fish is sick.” As he stands up he goes: “It’s a full washing machine out there.” Then, right before he leaves, he whispers: “the Lighthouse is gonna blow up tomorrow.”

Do you: a)Call a vet? b)Suggest a Maytag repairman?c)Warn the FBI of an impending terrorist attack? Ord) Start pondering which board will work best the next day, taking note to stay as far away from this guy as possible.

If you answered “d”, you might be a surfer.

Wear trunks to church. Permanently bolt a board to your racks. Tattoo a wave on your back. Nothing you do says “I’m a surfer” so much as the words that come out of your mouth. That’s because how we speak is much like surfing itself: a constantly changing exchange of fresh expressions that anyone can witness but only the most dedicated participants ever fully understand. As we explore new places and perform different moves, this secret language, this slang, jargon or patois — this surf speak, if you will —evolves, creating updated codes that transmit exactly what’s happening in our sport at any given second. The problem is our language is already so intricate and nuanced, we need way more terms than we can invent. So, we pick them up someplace else.

“What drives the evolution of language is the need to express complex concepts in a single word,” says Dr. David Harrison, a linguistics professor at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. “Otherwise, you’d be stuck with these long descriptive sentences. So, speakers either coin a new term — or borrow it. And languages tend to borrow promiscuously.”

Surfers are some of the most promiscuous borrowers on the planet. Not only do we tap other languages (gringo, haole), we tap whole other worlds. Builders (slab, backdoor). Cowboys (dude, rodeo flip, shooter). Zoos (snakes, swallowtails, fins.) Even the military (guns, takeoff, launch pad). Once we steal something, its ours, robbing even the most powerful words of all original meaning in a need to redefine both surfing and ourselves. And if you don’t believe us, try telling airport security about the “bomb” you scored on your last trip.

So why did we say you might be a surfer? Easy. Because anything you steal can stolen back.

Even the word “surf” is stolen, a phonetic respelling of sough — “a rushing noise” — first used to describe the coast of India in 1685. Captain Cooke applied it to the “Sandwich Islanders’” playground in 1779, and we still use it today more than three centuries later.

Of course, Cooke could’ve easily put his sticky fingers on some fresher terminology — the Hawaiians’ intricate oral chants already had thousands of words for waves and their specific parts — but it wouldn’t have mattered. The ensuing colonists quickly began trying to eradicate all traces of island culture. They were nearly successful, which is why, despite being surfing’s mother tongue, we use so few ancient Hawaiian terms today. In fact, when {{{Rabbit}}} Kekai’s generation stopped “sliding ass” in the 1930s, they left behind the last literal link to surfing’s true name “he’e-nalu’ — wave sliding. What’d they replace it with ? Hotdogging (a term strangely stolen from the Frankfurter industry) simultaneously kick-starting high-performance surfing and a new process of slang appropriation that looks outside the sport in order to describe what’s happening inside it — provided you’re already inside.

“Surfing itself has become more complex with a wider range of techniques and equipment, so language must constantly keep up,” Harrison explains. “But it also has effect of defining a social group. You have to master the lingo in order to be considered a fully-fledged member. I’d imagine a lot of these phrases are very nuanced and complex — you have to know precisely when to use them.”

In an age where inland malls offer miles of big-logoed surf wear — where every kid under 20 says “sick, dude” — faulty syntax is the linguistic equivalent of wearing your wetsuit inside out. Saying “those are some big swells out there” instead of “it’s pumping.” Calling it a “frontside three” when it was really an “alley-oop” — those little slips become giant cracks in a kook’s t-shirt armor. And today’s surfers will do anything to keep those cracks showing.

We’ll swipe from team sports (punt, drainer). The corner bar (kegging). Take two entirely different worlds and weld them together (what exactly is rocket fish anyway?) We can tweak a tube-ride so it’s either a shack or a cathedral; give it both a chandelier and a doggy door. We’ll even steal from ourselves, cannibalizing well-known terms and regurgitating them far outside the water.

Miss a session because you didn’t do your chores? “Sorry, dude, mom’s got me pitted.” Pass an off ramp on the Freeway? Better pull a reo. The best modern slanguists — like the best surfers — combine and twist existing terminology, and even names, into newer, crazier linguistic feats, digging deeper and deeper to assert inside positioning, creating expressions even lifelong surfers can’t always pull off.

“It sounds like [surf slang] is a cryptolect,” says Harrison, “since one of its primary functions is to mask what you’re saying. Or a ‘cant,’ which comes from English thieves who had their own way of speaking — that way no one would know they were planning a robbery.”

In other words, we constantly steal new words in order to say same thing: I’m a surfer; you’re not.

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